On one of the hottest days of the year, more than 1,300 young people from around the country gathered together for WYD Unite, bringing together alumni of former World Youth Days as well as pilgrims from at least 52 Catholic dioceses around the nations.
They gathered for the all-day event at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, named for the Pope who in 1984 began the World Youth Day celebrations to bring together millions of young people from around the globe to share and grow in their Catholic faith. From their starting place in Rome, World Youth Days have traveled across the world to six continents, most recently in 2016 to Pope John Paul II’s homeland of Poland.
The smaller United States gathering focused upon the theme, “The Mighty Has Done Great Things for Me and Holy is His Name.” The gathering explored the radical “Yes” Mary gave at the Annunciation, as well as gratitude for how God has acted in our lives.
Throughout the day, pilgrims toured the exhibits of the National Shrine, and had opportunities for Reconciliation and spiritual direction. The day also featured performances by Tony Melendez and Audrey Assad. Melendez is a master guitarist who was born without arms, but learned to play guitar using his feet. Previously he has performed before Saint Pope John Paul II in 1987. Assad, a daughter of a Syrian Christian refugee, is an acclaimed musician and songwriter who also often speaks on behalf of persecuted Christians of the Middle East.
Childcare and children’s catechesis was provided both by the event and by the Sister Servants of the Lord.
The first keynote message of the day was given by Bishop-elect Nelson Perez, who will soon take over the Diocese of Cleveland. He reminded attendees that “God meets us where we are in our brokenness, lowliness.”
While encounter with Christ may inspire a person to be kind or compassionate or have a loving family, these traits are not a mark of a Christian themselves, he continued. Instead, the Christian holds to the truth that Jesus “moved, He rose from the dead, and He continues to move in us and through us and about us.”
Bishop-elect Perez also urged the young Christians present to embrace gratitude for all that God has given, and to view one’s life as not only a gift but a tool for God to use. He recalled a personal story of a young woman he had spoken to rudely. Three years later, the bishop said, as the same young woman lay on her deathbed, she told Bishop-elect Perez it was the closest she had ever felt to God.
“Never underestimate the power of God’s spirit working in you, through you and despite you, and most of the time unbeknownst to you and to me,” the bishop reflected.
Later, the participants attended Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., told attendees to bring their neighbors and peers “into the ongoing mission of the Church.” He warned the youth not to be discouraged by the threat of modern secularism, instead placing hope in and offering a witness of God’s love.
Returning in a procession to the Saint John Paul II Shrine, participants were joined by an image of “Our Lady Undoer of Knots,” which was present for the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and blessed by the Pope during his visit there.
A second keynote was then delivered by Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Conn.
Bishop Caggiano focused on the radical message of the Annunciation and Mary’s acceptance of God’s plan. “It was her ‘yes’ that allowed ourselves to come here, and her ‘yes’ that enabled us to say yes to her Son,” he said.
He challenged the young people to accept God’s love of them, but also noted that that acceptance of God’s love compels us to bring that love “to everyone you and I meet.”
“Life will give you a thousand reasons to doubt God’s love,” he warned the youth, but to be missionary disciples, Christians need to “say yes to the fact that Jesus is extending his hand to us in friendship.”
After the keynote, the night ended with Eucharistic Adoration and prayer, accompanied by music.